Vaughantown: An Enclave of English in the Heart of Spain
If you’re looking for an adventure and a chance to learn more about the people and the culture of Spain, you should consider a trip to VaughanTown.
You get to stay at a four-star luxury hotel in the Spanish countryside at no charge, with food and amenities included, and you get a Spanish experience that can’t be found in guidebooks and tourist attractions.
And all you have to offer in exchange is English conversation.
The proposition sounds too good to be true, but thousands of English-speaking visitors have tried it and their testimonials are peppered with words like ‘incredible,’ ‘wonderful,’ ‘memorable’ and ‘fantastic’. Many return again and again.
VaughanTown is an English-language immersion program for Spaniards that matches them with English speakers for six days of conversation, games, skits, presentations and quiet walks in the Spanish countryside. No teaching experience is required for the ‘Anglo’ vaughantown volunteers.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The program is the brainchild of Richard Vaughan, a business student from Texas who came to Spain to teach English in the 1970s. Vaughan found at textbook language instruction was not nearly as effective as engaging in actual conversation.
“The only way to truly understand a language,” he says, “is to actively practice it.”
VaughanTown gives Spanish speakers a chance to practice conversation with English speakers from all over the world, not language teachers, but ordinary people from all walks of life.
“We want to expose our Spanish friends to real English, to the real McCoy, not to a watered down, standard version of the language. We expose them to the language just as they may hear it in the streets of London, Glasgow, Dublin, New York, Toronto, Melbourne, Cape Town, or for that matter, Coffeyville, Kansas.”
VaughanTown gives Spaniards, learning English, the chance to test their ability 12 hours a day for six days with no Spanish allowed, so they don’t have a chance to stop, think and translate.
“Conventional language training is like learning to swim in the shallow end of the pool.” Vaughan says. “The instructor holds you underneath so that you are level with the pool surface and you perform the new strokes being taught. If you flounder you don’t get any water up your nose.”
“At VaughanTown, we want them coughing up half the pool. Why? Because that’s what often happens to them in real-life language situations.”
Among the Spanish clients at Vaughantown are employees of Microsoft, Ericsson, Accenture, John Deere, Ford, Pfizer Labs, Johnson & Johnson, Coca Cola, Heineken, Exxon-Mobil, and many other companies which need managers to be proficient in English.
VaughanTown programs are held at the Hotel Puerta de Gredos in Barco de Avila near the border of Salamanca and Extremadura on 15 acres with a panoramic view of the Gredos mountain range, and at Hospedería Parque de Monfragüe, located near the gates of the National Park of Monfragüe, in the western Spanish region of Extremadura near the village of Torrejón el Rubio.
Both sites are four-star luxury hotels and participants get private rooms, internet access, and other amenities including swimming pools and, at Gredos, jacuzzis.
Breaking the Ice
For English speakers, the VaughanTown experience begins in Madrid on Saturday, where they generally spend one night before taking a bus to Gredos or Monfragüe. The program hosts a tapas reception in the afternoon where participants are given tips on where to enjoy the capital city’s nightlife.
(Volunteers make their own arrangements for lodging and entertainment Saturday night.)
The next morning volunteers and cllients take a bus to the hotel and the master of ceremonies explains the program, in which Anglos and Spaniards are paired up for 50-minute one-on-one conversations. These make up the main body of the program, and they are interspersed with games, skits, karaoke, simulated telephone conversations and other exercises aimed at ‘breaking the ice.’
One important part of the one-on-one conversations, by the way, is explaining idiomatic phrases like ‘breaking the ice.’
Many of these sessions take place as participants stroll around the grounds of the hotel admiring the scenery.
Another important component is mealtime conversation, when English speakers tend to speak more quickly and use more slang expressions than they do in the one-on-one sessions.
The program also includes simulated telephone calls, which are important to practice because speakers do not have the visual clues — hand gestures and facial expressions — which help them understand face-to-face conversations.
The whole day, except for the traditional siesta, is taken up with conversation in English. Entertainment, including Spanish music and dancing, is provided most evenings.
The culmination of the program for Spanish speakers is a ten-minute presentation on the topic of their choice. Giving these presentations means speaking to a larger group for a longer period of time than they have in the one-on-one conversations.
Participants say it’s exciting to watch as Spaniards gain greater confidence in English over the course of the week and the group experiences a growing sense of camaraderie. And with all those 50-minute conversations, people come to know each other well, and often form lasting friendships.
Those who volunteer for VaughanTown programs are enthusiastic about the program, and many return to do it again.
“What a fantastic week!” writes Olivia Cox of the UK. “There are not enough superlatives to describe how great my time in Gredos was. I met the most fantastic people, both Anglos and Spaniards and it was really very hard to say goodbye on our last day.”
Renee Lasher of the USA says VaughanTown is “the world’s greatest cultural exchange program.”
“I admit to having had a few concerns beforehand,” she says, “about my own ability to keep up conversation and to make myself understood, about getting burnt out before the program was over, about spending so much concentrated time with strangers.”
“My advice to future participants? Shove the concerns aside when you get on the bus. I sat next to Carolina, a Spanish participant and one of the loveliest human beings you could ever hope to meet, and we talked the whole way there. Throw your self into the deep end, trust me, the water’s fine.”
Freedom and Flexibility
Rowena Gerspacher of Canada says she appreciated the program’s flexibility. “The magic ingredient in the program is the autonomy they invest in the Anglo partner. I loved having no prescribed set of tedious questions which only serve to generate boredom.”
“Their method encourages creativity and spirited dialogue on the part of both participants. The result is a dynamic exchange which engages the individuals in a truly holistic sense ; spontaneously exchanging ideas from the heart, soul and intellect.”
Pat Smith of the UK says the program is a great experience for people of all ages. “I am 60,” she writes, “and hoped that I would not be much older than all the other participants. I wasn’t, but I don’t think it would have mattered if I had been. Everyone mixed so well that age was a very minor consideration. We all got to feel so comfortable with each other, and so quickly that after lunch on Sunday we all mixed very freely.”
Lisa Devaney of the USA writes, “I generally think of exchange programmes as being valuable to others when you can help people build homes, create agricultural farming in their community and build bridges or other much-needed resources for survival. I can’t build a bridge, design crop rotation systems or install a sewage plant, but I can talk and talk and talk.”
“For me, and other participants, the week at Vaughan Town was about stepping out of my own isolated sphere, moving beyond my comfort zone and overcoming fears I have.”
“While it was voluntary and paid no financial rewards,” writes Natalie Davison of TimesonLine, “I left with some new found Spanish and English friends, some greater understanding of Spanish people and culture and one hell of an adventure.”
Applications for VaughanTown can be found online at VaughanTown.com and dozens of programs are available, including a special young adults week.
The designated meeting point is Madrid where transfers are made to VaughanTown. Flights to and from the capital, and accommodations Saturday night, are not covered by Vaughan.
Travel writers are welcome to attend a week at VaughanTown as participants.